US sanctions on Eritrean officials for role in Tigray deemed ‘blackmail’ by Asmara

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Wednesday, 25 August 2021 14:20

Tigrayans protest at the White House against Ethiopia's continued war on Tigray, demanding assistance and an end to ethnic cleansing in the province on 21 August 2021. Photo by Allison Bailey/Shutterstock

The United States Treasury Department has ramped up diplomatic pressure on Eritrea over its involvement in the Tigray conflict, in a move that Asmara has equated to “blackmail.”

The United States government announced on Monday 23 August that it had imposed sanctions on General Filipos Woldeyohannes, chief of staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces, “for his connection with serious human rights abuse committed during the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia.”

Under his command, Eritrea’s forces have adopted a “scorched earth” policy in a “systematic effort to inflict as much harm on the ethnic Tigrayan population as possible” in the areas under its control, Washington said in several press statements.

Eritrea responded saying it rejects “the utterly baseless allegations and blackmail”, and demanded that the US “bring the case to an independent adjudication if it indeed has facts to prove its false allegations.”

The sanctions against 66-year-old Woldeyohannes, who has served as the country’s military chief since March 2014 and doubles up as the minister for defence, are the latest sign that the United States intends to increase diplomatic pressure on key figures in Asmara and Addis Ababa.

In May, the US placed visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials, members of security forces – both national and regional – as well as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It also made further aid cuts to Ethiopia, ramping up economic pressure on the country’s budget, and said it would also tweak its defence trade control policies.

Washington first announced aid cuts in September 2020, in response to Ethiopia’s handling of negotiations with Sudan and Egypt over the disputed Grand Renaissance Dam project. Although the dam remains an important issue, focus has since shifted to the 10-month-old conflict in Tigray.

Diplomatic pressure….ceasefire?

Part of the diplomatic pressure from the US, United Nations, and other bodies is for an immediate ceasefire and unrestricted aid access. On 20 August, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on all parties to heed to a ceasefire, arguing that “there is no military solution” to the conflict.

The UN and its constituent humanitarian bodies have repeatedly raised the issue of aid access, saying that only 30 trucks can be scanned under current procedures, against the 100 trucks of humanitarian aid needed everyday.

Meanwhile, with the US and its allies pushing for a ceasefire, the Ethiopian prime minister signed several deals, including military cooperation and financial assistance, with Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan during a visit to Ankara last week.

Turkey ready to provide support ‘of any kind’

Although the details of the deals were not made public, speculation immediately pivoted to the sale of military equipment; in particular, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 armed drones.

In his speech, President Erdogan said Turkey was ready to provide “any kind of support, including mediation, to end the conflict peacefully.” It is unclear whether Tigray would accept Turkey as a mediator, but Erdogan does have extensive diplomatic pull that could assist PM Abiy in another ongoing conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan over a disputed border.

Turkey is a major investor in Ethiopia, with its current investments estimated at $2.5bn in textiles and other sectors, making it the second largest investor in the country after China. However, it is still unclear whether the new deals include the sale of drones, which could turn the tide of the Tigray war. Ethiopia’s air force has deployed drones at some level, but their provenance is still unknown.

At the start of the conflict last November, there were claims that Eritrean forces who crossed the border into Tigray were backed by Chinese-made, UAE-operated drones. A top Ethiopian Air Force general also admitted to the use of drones at the time, but did not delve into any details.

In July, the Turkish Embassy in Ethiopia dismissed claims that the ENDF was using Turkish drones in its war in Tigray. The embassy was responding to the most recent claims, mainly by Tigrayan forces and affiliated media, of armed drone use in the conflict.

In early August, images of PM Abiy Ahmed visiting Semara Airport – in the capital of the Afar region – also led to speculation of use of armed drones in the conflict, this time suspected to be Iranian-made. An analysis by the Netherlands-based fact-checking website Bellingcat found that the two drones visible in the images were likely Iranian-made and armed with air-to-ground missiles: plausible, but not conclusive.

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